The New Bee on the Block

Ivy bee (Colletes hederae)

Dear Readers, there is something about spotting a ‘new’ species of animal or plant that always makes my pulse race, especially when it’s one that I’ve been looking out for for a while. So it was on Saturday, when a birthday visit to the National Archives at Kew with my husband to see an exhibition about the Cold War had the unexpected bonus of a splendid stand of ivy flowers in the grounds. They were abuzz with all manner of hoverflies, some wasps and the usual honeybees, but then I noticed that some of those ‘honeybees’ had distinctive black and yellow-striped abdomens. There was also something about the way that the pollen was gathering in the hairs on the legs, rather than being neatly tucked away into the proper ‘basket’ that I’d expect to see on a honeybee. At last! I’d spotted an ivy bee, and it wasn’t long before I had my eye in and saw several dozen. The photos this week were taken with my phone as I hadn’t expected to ‘get lucky’, so please forgive the quality.

First things first. Ivy bees were first spotted in the UK in 2001, and since then have been steadily advancing north – their range includes most of Europe, as far south as Cyprus. They are on the wing in late autumn when the ivy flowers, and it is used as a source of pollen and nectar. Ivy bees are solitary bees – they don’t congregate in communal nests, but have build nest tunnels, although the bees may nest in the same small area, sometimes creating conglomerations of thousands of individual nests. These are the last of the British bees to emerge – I have noted before that the emergence of solitary bees seems to be in strict sequence. In my garden, the first to appear is the hairy-footed flower bee in early spring, followed by the ashy mining bees. I intend to pay closer attention next year to see who pops out when.

The ivy bee males emerge first, and hang around the nest tunnels looking for females. The first females to turn up may be mobbed, with lots of males attempting to mate – this phenomenon is known as a ‘mating ball’. Once mated, the female will head off to excavate a nest tunnel, lining it with a cellophane-like substance that she produces from her salivary glands. This substance is water-proof and contains a fungicide, which helps to protect the pollen and nectar that she gathers from ‘going bad’. This is important because she will lay her eggs on the food that she’s collected, and they won’t hatch until the following summer.

Another hazard for the female ivy bee is that a beetle has evolved a sophisticated method of feeding its own larvae at the expense of the young bees. The ivy bee blister beetle (Stenoria analis) lays its eggs close to the nesting tunnels of the ivy bees. These hatch into larvae known as triongulins because of the three claws on their feet. The newly-hatched male ivy bees approach these larvae, and behave in a very peculiar way, sometimes attempting to mate with them. It’s thought that this might be because the triongulins produce a pheromone that mimics the smell of a female. The small individual larvae also clump together in a way that may resemble the shape of a bee, though looking at them individually this seems rather unlikely. Once the male comes close enough, the triongulins will ‘hop on’ and wait for the next stage of their extraordinary journey.

Photo One by By Slimguy - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51455849

Ivy bee blister beetle (Stenoria analis) (Photo One)

The male ivy bee, now festooned with beetle larvae, will eventually find a ‘real’ female to mate with, and in the blink of an eye will transfer to her. They will ride back to the female’s nest tunnel, hop off and imbed themselves in the wall, allowing themselves to be sealed in with all that lovely nectar and pollen and, sadly, with the bee egg. The triongulin eats the egg first and then gobbles up all the supplies. If more than one beetle larva ends up in the same nest, one of them will eat the other one too. In the following summer, a new beetle emerges, and the cycle begins all over again.

Photo Two by By Pjt56 --- If you use the picture outside Wikipedia I would appreciate a short e-mail to pjt56@gmx.net or a message on my discussion page - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62016106

Ivy bee with lots of little ‘hangers on’ (Photo Two)

I am always amazed at the complexity of the relationship between parasites and their hosts. It must be such an ‘arms race’ for each species involved, each one evolving new ways of outwitting the other. According to my Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland, it appears that the ivy bee blister beetle currently only parasitizes ivy bees in the Channel Islands rather than on mainland Britain. It will be interesting to see how long it takes to arrive on the South Coast. I find myself hoping that this attractive little bee will have at least a few years to enjoy the ivy flowers without being harassed.

So, if you have any ivy flowers around, do take a closer look at those ‘honeybees’. In my local area my favourite ivy ‘shrub’, which used to harbour a bumblebee nest, has been cut right back, so no chance of any ivy bees there. Ivy is a remarkable resource for all kinds of pollinators in the late autumn when everything else has died back, and a fine place for birds to nest in the spring. I do realise that it can be a menace when it’s climbing a wall, but I would put in a plea for gardeners to leave it where it isn’t causing a major problem. The ivy bees will love you for it.

Photo Three by By Charles J Sharp - Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51348999

Male ivy bee (Photo Three)

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Slimguy – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51455849

Photo Two by By Pjt56 — Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62016106

Photo Three by By Charles J Sharp – Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51348999

 

 

 

 

 

14 thoughts on “The New Bee on the Block

  1. Liz

    Wonderful article, thank you. Will have a look next time we are at the NA.
    (By pure chance, we were also there last Saturday, also to see the exhibition, also marking a birthday.)

    Reply
  2. Sarah Ann Bronkhorst

    Ivy’s flowering profusely in my garden and in the local cemetery so I will look out for the bees and the beetles. Have an urge to kill the beetles … but must resist it.

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      I’m not sure that the beetles are actually in the mainland UK yet, Ann – they do look a bit like lily beetles at a quick glance though. And let me know if you spot any unusual bees!

      Reply
  3. Bobbie Jean

    I remember how excited I was to discover new bees in our backyard. This summer I noticed a large entirely black bee. When our 40 foot willow flowers in the spring it buzzes. If you look closely the tree seems to vibrate from all those bees feeding. I stand in awe. There are days when it’s not safe to walk across the lawn because of pockets of bees feeding on the tiny flowers.

    Speaking of beetles. Did you read the story about the Greta beetle? “Nelloptodes gretae bears little resemblance to its namesake – it is less than 1mm long, and has no wings or eyes. The insect does, however, have two long pigtail-like antennae.” And: N. gretae doesn’t bear much resemblance to climate activist Greta Thunberg.”

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      I did read about the Greta beetle! How lovely to have a new species named after her. And I love your story about the willows – they are a tremendous source of pollen in the spring. I am very tempted to plant a Kilmarnock willow – it’s the smaller version of the goat willow that the bees seem to love.

      Reply
  4. Toffeeapple

    I heard about the Ivy Bee on radio 4 last week and quickly went to my Ivy fence to see if I had any. I didn’t spot any form the description I heard on the radio but now that you have provided pictures I stand more of a chance – if the Wasps let me get close enough that is. The eyes are very large aren’t they?

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      They look rather like honeybees, Toni, but they are a little bit ginger, and I thought that the way the pollen sticks to the legs in a rather haphazard fashion, rather than in a neat little blob, was a dead giveaway.

      Reply

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